Photographer Marcella van Alphen showing a photo to EcoTracker instructor Norman Chauke in the African bush

In the tracks of wildlife in Africa

Text: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
Photographs: Marcella van Alphen & Claire Lessiau

The three lobes are very distinct. The leading edge of the main pad is flat. I orientate my flashlight to have a better view: the four toes are nicely rounded. There is no doubt: this footprint was left by a young male lion, only a few hours ago. I stand up, and look at my dome tent, barely two metres (6 feet) away. As the sun rises over the South African bush, the sky turns red orange, and the spoors are better lit. I switch off the torch and turn back to the soft sand: next to this track, I can identify some others, amongst which the ones of a lioness with their pointy leading edges lit by the few sun rays at dawn. The way the spoors are positioned tells me that this pride of lions was casually walking through the EcoTraining Camp in the Selati Game Reserve while I was half asleep. The alarm call of the troop of baboons, the sound of the herd of impalas running, the hardly palpable changes in the air and the scuffing in the sand that I heard during the night now all make sense. I do not know what I am amazed by the most: the proximity with these lions or the amount of practical knowledge I have gained during a week immersed in the wild living my most intense safari experience to this date…

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Up close and personal with rhinos

Text: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen

The cold water of the rain shower feels good: it has been a long drive with the very last stretch on a hilly rough dirt road in the burning sun before we eventually arrived at the lodge. As I am contemplating the view on the endless rolling hills in my favourite wilderness of South Africa from the shower, I am startled. I jump out onto the large outdoor private deck of our villa and with my hands – and everything else for that matter – still wet, I grab my binoculars: “rhinos!” I observe three of these prehistoric animals with their so coveted horns roaming the opposite green slope: a calf which I estimate no older than a few months, its mother and another white rhino that could be the calf’s older sibling. I feel extremely privileged to witness this scene as their numbers are dangerously plummeting and rhinos are on the verge of extinction, being poached to feed the insatiable Chinese market. For sure, the Isibindi Rhino Ridge Safari Lodge that sits at the edge of the Hluhluwe iMfolozi game reserve in Kwazulu Natal, is well named! If the head of Isibindi Africa Trails, Nunu Jobe, is as pertinently nicknamed, I hardly dare imagining what a walk in the African bush with the “Rhino Whisperer” holds for me…

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Young shepherd in traditional clothes herding his angora sheep in Eastern Lesotho

Exploring Eastern Lesotho

Text & photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen

“Hold on tight! It is going to be very bumpy,” the seriousness resonates in Christeen Grant’s voice, experienced mountain guide passionate about the Drakensberg. The engine of the iconic Land Rover Defender roars while the suspensions of the sturdy 4×4 are motioning like an accordion. If we found Christeen’s words “It is going to be a little bit bumpy!” quite entertaining two years ago Keep exploring!

Portrait of a wild cheetah in its natural environment of green grass in the Phinda Private Game Reserve, South Africa.

The ultimate ethical safari experience: &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve

It is getting dark fast now the sun has set. A jackal scurries on the African soil that is still warm after a hot summer day. Crickets tune in forming a loud orchestra while bright stars start decorating the sky, one by one. Agile nightjars catch moths and other insects in the faint headlights of the open Toyota Land Cruiser 4×4 safari truck in which we are seated. A woollen blanket keeps my legs warm while I tuck away my Canon camera after capturing some of Africa’s most emblematic animals. I am keeping an eye out for leopards, bush-babies, genets, and other nocturnal animals which eyes would lit up in the respectful infrared light that our tracker moves up and down the trees. Suddenly, Keep travelling!

People taking a photo of a teenage elephant showing off in front of a game drive vehicle in the bush.

How to select the best game park for your safari in South Africa?

For many, a safari is a dream trip, often a once in a lifetime experience. This is why it is important to select the type of safari and game park carefully to avoid any disappointment. South Africa is one of the best countries in the world to observe wildlife in beautiful and varied landscapes showcased in its two main types of parks: government-run parks and private game reserves. The offer is so vast and prices so high that we have put together some thoughts in order to help you select the safari that is the most adapted to you.

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Soweto, way more than a township: an identity

Lungile leads the way and with a huge smile on his face he greets basically everyone we come across. “Sawubona! Unjani?” Zulu for hello, how are you. “Ngiyaphila“, I’m fine. “Chap chap“. “So you were born and raised in Johannesburg?” I ask him as I push hard on my pedals, biking uphill under the South African sun. “No!” he answers clearly offended to add with pride: “I was born and raised in Soweto!”

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The Wild Coast: hike it before they mine it!

We are sitting on a flat rock by the roaring Indian Ocean observing the powerful waves crashing violently into the rugged rocky shore and spraying 15-metre high into the air. Inland the green hills, warmly bathed by the sunset light, seem to never end. Far on the horizon, only a few white rondavels with their thatched roofs remind us that we are not alone in this world. We are discovering the remote land of the Pondo people stretching along the last unspoilt shore of South Africa during a five-day trek. But the Wild Coast is jeopardised by an international titanium mining project that would disfigure it and rob the Pondo people of their most precious asset: their land. Keep travelling!

Reviving Cambodia’s pride: Khmer golden silk

Born and raised in Paris, I am familiar with the haute couture stores of Avenue Montaigne or Rue Saint Honoré where the highest end luxury shops in the world can be found. The finest silk pieces I have ever seen are sliding through my fingers and I feel their soft and delicate textures. The shiny fabrics reflect the light delicately. The relief of the silk gives it an unexpected depth. However, I am not in the upscale heart of Paris, I am in rural Cambodia a stone’s throw from the temples of Angkor where this rare Khmer silk was made just for the king: “It took more than 10 years of research, and trial and error to revive the century-old forgotten techniques of silk weaving of the Khmers!” says Sophea Peach, the founder of Golden Silk, and it all started with the devata‘s sculpture of Angkor… Let me show you…” Keep travelling

Meet the Akha tribes of Northern Laos

A young woman with a peculiar headdress enters the smoky dark room. She brings in a big tray covered with breakfast dishes: fried morning glory, fried noodles, a bamboo woven basket filled with steamy sticky rice, some chicken, and the homebrewed whiskey! A fire burns next to me in a small clay pot on the dirt floor, and despite the smoke that stings my eyes, I stay close to the welcomed heat source. Reluctantly, I move my little stool closer to the very low table on which the tray is set, joining our guide Sivangxai, the Ban Peryenxangkao village chief and his nephews. Here, in the ethnically diverse Northern Laos, Akha tribes live according to their ancient traditions far from modern civilisation. Keep reading

How a legend saved thousands of lives

“There is a big hole in the ocean where all the fish sleep. When these millions of fish wake up every day, they are hungry and come out of the hole to eat. As they empty this hole, the sea water gets into the hole instead and the sea level lowers: this is low tide. After eating, they get back into the hole to rest, squeezing the sea water out, and raising the ocean level as a consequence: this is high tide.” Lena passionately tells us the story the way she learnt it from the Moken people. These sea nomads of the Adaman Sea have been passing this legend on for generations, saving thousands of lives. Keep reading

Traditional crafts of Cambodia (5/7): fish paste, Battambang

“Smell like the hell, eat like the heaven”, Mr. Ola tells us with a mesmerizing smile while explaining his mother’s signature recipe for the traditional prahok, a Cambodian fish paste dish. I uncomfortably move from one leg to the other trying to carefully listen to his story but holding my breath at the same time, avoiding the offending foul smell. We are about to discover how the unmissable and key ingredient for many Asian dishes is made on the fish paste market of Battambang, Cambodia. Keep reading

Motorbiking the loop, Laos

The engine of our wooden canoe with long tail echoes in the large room while a cool wind makes me shiver. In total darkness, I vaguely distinguish rocks shaped as faces or animals briefly lit up by the beam of the headlamp of our captain. He is constantly scanning the limestone walls, as the slightest miscalculation on these shallow waters would be fatal to our boat. With great skills, our boatman manoeuvres up the winding subterranean Hinboun River which flows through the geological wonder of South-East Asia, the Kong Lor cave in Laos. Keep traveling!

Lake safari & jungle trekking in world’s oldest rainforest, Khao Sok, Thailand

Lime stone karst formations are gradually revealing themselves as the morning mist on the Cheow Lan Lake slowly rises. The sun bathes the rocks in warm colours and highlights the jungle growing on their steep flanks. I slowly crawl out of my bed to take a morning swim in the surprisingly warm lake. While climbing back up to the pontoon of my floating bungalow, I notice a familiar rising and falling of shrills that gives me goose bumps: a family of gibbons starts to sing, Keep reading

Traditional crafts of Cambodia (3/7): Rice noodles, Battambang

Rice noodles are a favourite in many Asian countries. A pho for breakfast or rice noodles as a base for lunch or dinner are common. To serve this high demand, most noodles are produced in factories. However, it is still possible to buy them fresh and hand-made. In Battambang, a few families living in the rice noodle district have been passing on this know-how for many generations.

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Tasting the best coffee in the world in Boquete, Panama

“Position your nose inside the cup and inhale. Just close your eyes and smell thoroughly.” My hands are wrapped around a warm coffee cup while I  am distinguishing the elegant flavours. “Now move your nostril along the ridge of the cup and smell again. What do you smell now?”

I am trying to recognize the different scents: honey, a trace of jasmine, a hint of fruits, an orange aftertaste. This coffee is not just a regular coffee: I am tasting the best coffee of the world! Indeed, the Geisha coffee from the mountains of Boquete, Panama, has been acclaimed by worldwide independent tasters as the best, with its price reaching up to $350 for a pound of its unprocessed green beans.

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Discover Bastimentos: the secret gem of Bocas del Toro, Panama

Since the archipelago of Bocas del Toro was discovered in 1502 by Christopher Columbus, the island of Bastimentos has served as a base for vessels; hence its name that literally translates as “supplies”. Its fertile soil and tropical climate are ideal for a wide variety of plants to grow plentifully as we are about to discover, setting off for a jungle and beach hike with our specialized guides. Keep traveling!

Meet the real Nicaragua: rural homestay in Miraflor

I am having a déja-vu: a 4:45AM alarm clock to catch an early bus en route for our next adventure. The now familiar chicken bus, the bumpy ride on the unpaved road, the farm workers getting on and off… It reminds me a lot of Carmelita, Guatemala. Except that instead of blasting music, the radio screams out the local news: challenges faced by women working in tobacco factories letting their kids alone for the day, a call for blood donations, free medical consultations on the main square of Estelí,… We are in the north east of Nicaragua, where the left Sandinista movement has been the strongest and still prevails. Keep traveling!